Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bryant, May and the Match Girls Part 3

. . .Go to the mouldering lane
Where the match-girls cry in their terrible pain;
Where the phosphor eats to the festering bone,
Till the Merciful Angel claims its own,
     And the sufferers gladly die. . .

Go, shareholders, you with the dividend fair,
     Go, see and consider it well
How the daughters of women are perishing there
     In your Lucifer's Brimstone Hell!

Star, 19 January 1892, cited in Lowell J. Satre, "After the Match Girls' Strike:
Bryant and May in the 1890s,Victorian Studies, Autumn 1982, p. 17.

The strike of 1888 was not the end of the problems faced by Bryant and May.  Below the surface, tensions continued to seethe, leading to sporadic outbreaks of dissatisfaction.  Despite the company's strategic back-down in 1888, it never admitted or accepted blame for the conditions that brought about the Match Girls' Strike.  Indeed, the nearest it came to doing so was in its attempt to divert blame from the directors on to the supervisory staff.

Although such a strategy may not have fooled those who felt that the industry was both dangerous and exploitative, it seems to have worked for others.  As Lowell J. Satre points out in his article, "After the Match Girls' Strike: Bryant and May in the 1890s," throughout that decade, "...writers treated Bryant and May as a model company, both in its modern technology and in its treatment of workers." In addition to a clear policy of denial, the match company mounted a campaign aimed at consumers, urging them to buy Bryant and May matches and suggesting that failure to do so was at least "inconsiderate" if not unpatriotic!
If all consumers would purchase Bryant and May's matches, that firm would be enabled to pay £1,000 a week more in wages, and large numbers of the unemployed in East London would thus be provided with work, instead of swelling the ranks of  pauperism.
In the decade following the 1888 strike, the situation of women in the workforce, particularly the physical danger those in factories were exposed to was raised on a number of occasions.  There were particularly strong campaigns in 1892 and in 1898. The more radical newspapers campaigned against the health risks to employees in several industries, among the most noteworthy of which was match-making. In these campaigns, Bryant and May were among those singled out, clearly because of the horrendous nature of the disease of phossy jaw and the company's attempt to contain any information regarding their inadequate safety features.

In the company's ongoing attempt to minimize the magnitude of health problems, phossy jaw in particular, Bryant and May constantly reiterated their claim that theirs was a safe workplace . Their public statements suggest that they viewed this serious problem simply as collateral damage.  After revelations in January of 1892, by the Star, of  cases of phossy jaw at Bryant and May other of the more left-wing newspapers, including Reynolds's Newspaper, attacked both the Government of the day and the company for their apparent lack of concern.

CHEAP MATCH-MAKING leads to what is called "phossy jaw"; that is, the rot of the mouth through the action of the phosphorous used in matches.  These matches are mostly made by young girls.  The profits on their sale are pocketed by clergymen and members of the pious middle class.  They are, of course, mainly responsible for this cruel fate of the daughters of the masses.  I venture to say that not one would abate a quarter per cent. of interest, even if he thought it would stop this frightful industrial cancer.
Should there have been any doubt as to the target of this tirade, in the very next column the reader would find that

BRYANT AND MAY, the matchmakers, pay a dividend of seventeen per cent.  It is stated that the application of a portion of this dividend to improvements would prevent the terrible disease of "phossy". ... Lord Salisbury the Tory Prime Minister, and his family are large shareholders; so are many parsons of the State Church; so is the Coercionist Whig Sir Julian Goldsmid M.P. How many of the parsons have implored that a portion of the dividends shall be spent for the protection of the poor girls? Not one. Nor, from the known character of these ecclesiastical bagmen, would anyone expect them to interfere in the cause of humanity. if, by doing so, their earthly treasures were diminished.
Much of the venom was aimed directly at the Home Minister, Henry Matthews. With the general election scheduled for July, Matthews was attacked for his failure to have factory inspectors  dealing with the obviously recalcitrant company.  Among the more vicious attacks on Matthews was one described by The Graphic as "an atrocious cartoon showing Death with a bandaged jaw, emerging from a match-box with the legend, "Vote for Matthews and "Phossy Jaw." The pressure on the Home Secretary seems to have had a positive effect. Within weeks of the election, and following  an investigation by his department, Matthews  "issued a notice that a factory inspector may call upon the firms ... To adopt such special rules or measures as may be necessary to mitigate the evil."

In 1893, a Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Lucifer Match Works noted that the only two cases of necrosis  since the special rules were established were two "which  ... occurred in the factory of Messrs. Bryant and May." The Committee went on, however, to indicate that in the opinion of its members "danger from that disease exists to all workers where white or yellow phosphorus is used."  In order to diminish the risks associated with the match making process, they suggested that the rules should be tightened even further.

The years from 1892 to 1898 represented, in many respects, the heart of what became known as "The New Journalism."  As Carolyn Malone has pointed out in Women's Bodies and Dangerous Trades in England 1880-1914,

The theme of the physical dangers of women's work, secondary in the match girls' strike to exploitative working conditions, came to the forefront in extensive newspaper coverage of women's work in 1892 and 1898.
In 1898 the attack on Bryant and May reached new heights, and Bryant and May was certainly not innocent of the charges from the newspapers and others. On the 3rd of May, 1898, Edward Pickersgill, MP for Bethnal Green in the East End rose to ask the Home Secretary

whether his attention has been called to the report of an inquest held at Bow, on Saturday last, on the body of Cornelius Lean, lately employed at the match factory of Messrs. Bryant and May, from which it appears that Lean was poisoned by the yellow phosphorus used in the manufacture; that the factory doctor, who admitted that the death was due to "phossy-jaw."
The Home Secretary replied that he had some knowledge of the case and found the circumstances surrounding it far from satisfactory but went on to point out that there had been no other reports of phosphorous poisoning since the Act of 1895, and in light of that there seemed insufficient justification to ban the use of yellow phosphorous.

On 1 June 1898, the firm of Bryant and May was called before the Worship Street Police Court by A. P. Vaughan, one of the Factory Inspectors, charged with breaches of Rule 6 of the Factory Acts. Gilbert Bartholomew, the managing director of Bryant and May appeared for the company which was accused of not providing evidence, as required, of phossy jaw to the certifying surgeon.

As Bartholomew, and therefore the company, was not represented by counsel, the Managing Director pleaded "guilty" to the charge, probably hoping that with a speedy conviction and a small fine the mater would be quickly buried. However, as Inspector Vaughan noted, this "was only one of a long series of cases, which had been deliberately suppressed by the firm." Bryant and May, Vaughan told the court, had advised one of the Factory Inspectors "that up to that particular date no other cases of death from phosphorous necrosis had ever come to the knowledge of the firm."

Vaughan then went on to point out that there had been at least six deaths in the previous five years and that these "could be directly traced to phosphorous poisoning" contracted in the company's factory. In addition, there were eleven further cases under the care of a doctor from Bryant and May.

Bartholomew attempted to minimize the cases by admitting to the charge but he claimed that with the exception of one death the others were "old cases" which predated the Special Rules of 1895.

The Magistrate summed up by describing it as "a very bad case" and went on to castigate the firm before imposing the maximum penalty, £10 for the breach of the special rules and £5 for not reporting cases. With costs, the total came to £25.

As a part of the continuing campaign to defend themselves as well as to paint a picture of the company as sympathetic and caring, Bartholomew, in his role as managing director of Bryant and May, wrote to the papers on 3 June 1898.  In his letter he argued that while the company had failed in one respect, it had actually met all of the other requirements of the Factory Act.  He went on to point out that the company provided treatment for those afflicted with the awful disease, adding that of the 47 cases dealt with over the last twenty years, "81 percent of those attacked have been completely cured, and many of those cured are still in our employ, enjoying the best of health."

In July, the radical politician John Burns MP took the Home Secretary to task for being all talk and little action..
I want to call the Home Secretary's attention to the fact that for 50 years at the table of the House of Commons we have had similar speeches made while these women are dying of phossy jaw and lead poisoning. The time has arrived when, in the absence of legislation, we should have administration to put a stop to this terrible condition of things.
  According to The Times, in late July, the Home Secretary addressed the House of Commons on the dangers of phosphorous in the match trade and what might be done to reduce these dangers.

The Times accused those who challenged the Government of laying claims which were lacking "the support of unimpeachable authority." It went on to claim that critics of Bryant and May had "created an impression that the evils to be guarded against are much greater than there is any evidence to show." The really guilty parties, according to the newspaper were the workers and  it was their unsanitary practices which led to the problems of phossy-jaw.

The truth is that one of the chief impediments to action in all such cases arises from the attitude of the workers themselves.In very many instances they strongly object to precautions which are intended to secure their safety, and either actively or passively resist their adoption.
Clearly it is easier to blame the victims than the firm that employs them.

The newspapers, too, continued to pursue the matter even to the point of making jokes in order to keep the matter before the public. On the 19th of August, for example, the following appeared in the Dover Express:
You haven't got phossy jaw have you ma?" "Of course not; What makes you ask such a question?" "Well, Miss Overthewell said you were a frightful matchmaker!"
According to the Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and workshops for the Year 1898, "the number of cases of phosphorous poisoning notified in 1898 was 21." All but one of the cases occurred in match factories where "Lucifers" were made and of the 21 reported cases, 15 were directly traceable to one factory.

The campaign against the horrors of "Phossy", mounted by the newspapers and brought before the Parliament was to have its effect.  But it had arrayed against it strong opposition from the match firms as well as segments of the government.  The main argument against the banning of the substance was the effect it would have on industry on the one hand and on employment in the industry on the other.  Nonetheless, laws were tightened, with new special rule instituted in 1899.  Eventually, in 1908, Britain passed legislation prohibiting the use of white phosphorous in matches after 31 December 1910

Although alternatives to while phosphorous, or the treatment of that substance to make it less dangerous, had certainly been known years earlier,  it was not until after 1910 that the process of making a safe, "strike anywhere" match began to be widely employed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yet another very good article.As an aside, it is said that media studies is a trivial subject, but oh no it isn't!